While the first half of the social media conference was composed of technical “how-to” sessions, the second half focused on “How can we use social media to effect social change?” Dick Howe introduced the session by crediting Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s success in politics partly to the “wise use of the internet.” After talking to a number of folks in Lowell, I believe that at least some thought social media could have a large effect on local politics, too. They were surprised when it didn’t seem to.
Derek Mitchell and Dan Rourke were kind enough to attend and discuss how they used social media. Kristin Ross-Sitcawich and Kim Scott, school committee members, were in attendance and also shared opinions and stories. Mr. Mitchell said he used social media to “build a brand and build a volunteer base.” Traditional media is unable to cover 22 candidates, so he needed another network to share his “narrative”. His specific strategy involved using Hootsuite to hit multiple social media platforms, specifically asking people to volunteer, getting them more invested in the campaign, ultimately encouraging them to talk to friends and family. Mr. Rourke thought Facebook was more important for this election, but Twitter has potential for its instant, brief messaging. Both speakers noted that Twitter users trend younger. The two school committee members generally agreed, although Ms. Ross-Sitcawich found the “permanence” of a website more effective than social media, which she uses to link to her website.
That said, all candidates agreed that nothing replaces canvassing, door knocking, and being on the road was most important. I’m reminded of a study about how door-to-door campaigns made a substantial increase on voter participation. Mt. Mitchell found more honest feedback about issues at doors than in public forums, and Mr. Rourke revealed he was out 2-3 hours a day after work, going to every house, not just those on the voter lists. However, those who rent and live in apartment buildings, are difficult to reach with these methods. (In my admittedly uninformed opinion, renters are a demographic overlooked by local candidates due to their low turnout.)
Mr. Mitchell drew laughs from one discovery: pictures, specifically those of his wife and him, drew the most hits. Later, an audience member mentioned Mr. Rourke’s use of family in his social media: “Rather than Danny the candidate, it was Danny the person.” Discussion focused on how including family to introduce and make candidates relatable was perhaps more important to a campaign than messaging about issues. However, Ms. Ross-Sitcawich reminded the audience about the privacy issues around using images of family in campaign materials. An entire book could be dedicated to what influences voter behavior (many have), but I think a study of nonpartisan, non-competitive elections such as Lowell’s would be very revealing. It strips away party affiliation and negative campaigning as factors in decision-making.
It also is undeniably local. Mr. Mitchell summarized: “There was a hope that social media would make local politics relevant.” I believe that he was talking about those who usually only vote in national elections: young and tech-savvy. The consensus is this didn’t work; traditional demographics (older, tied to traditional media) turned out. This leaves the burning question: can a society that values civic engagement at a local level impress local issues’ importance upon younger people, even those who are childless, work strange hours and/or who rent? This is an especially important question, as these are often the very people that people like Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Rourke can’t reach going door-to-door. The final part of the conference touched upon this, subject of a future post.